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A Comma Here, A Comma There

 

 

 

Let’s talk about commas, shall we? Not all uses of commas, mind you, because that would take way more time than either of us has and way more space than one wee blog post. Let’s talk about one use only today. It’s one that confuses lots of the writers I work with – and lots of writers whose books I read.

 

My brother, Frank is a good driver.

My brother Frank is a good driver.

My brother, Frank, is a good driver.

Look at those three sentences. Each one uses the same words. The only variable is the comma. Let’s examine each one in turn.

Number one is wrong. Period. If you do that, stop it. Just stop. You’ve left things unfinished. You began something with that comma and then dropped the ball, fumbled the hand-off, stumbled out of the blocks, whiffed your at-bat, and probably five or six other sports-related phrases I could throw out.

The second sentence shows that the particular brother you mean, Frank, out of your two or more brothers, is a good driver. You might mean that your other brother, George, is a bad driver. And maybe your third brother, Henry, is too young to drive. But Frank, that one particular brother, is a good driver.

Sentence number three indicates that your ONE brother whose name is Frank is a good driver.

If you want to think of it as an equivalency, go ahead because that’ll work, too. Your brother (your only brother) is equivalent to the name Frank, so you set that additional information off with a comma. Your one-brother-of-several Frank is NOT equivalent to the word brother, because you have other brothers as well, so you don’t set his name off with commas.

My stove, that annoying appliance I’m chained to, provides meals for my family.

In this case, the stove is the equivalent of “the annoying appliance I’m chained to,” so – you guessed it – that latter phrase is set off with commas.

 

My husband, Walter, is the love of my life.

My husband Albert is the love of my life. (My other husband, the one I’m committing bigamy with, isn’t.)

Try these.

Vinnie’s cousin Cleo thought her brother, Michael, hung the stars. (Vinnie has more than one cousin; Cleo has only one brother.)

That dog Sparkles is a huge nuisance .(Well, of course, there’s more than one dog in existence.)

My dog, Sparkles, is a huge nuisance. This time there’s only one dog.

I’ve used simple sentences in these illustrations, but the principle will remain the same, no matter how complex the sentence.

Just one minor thing but so important

Okay, let’s talk for a moment about the comma. Not all about its many uses in punctuating sentences – gracious, that would take all night. Let’s just pick one aspect of commas and look at it a bit.

Lately, I’ve edited a couple of pieces in which the writers didn’t quite understand the way an address–the sort where one character addresses another, not a street address 🙂 — inside a sentence is punctuated. So I fixed a lot of sentences like these. I hasten to add that none of these sentences appear in the manuscripts I edited. I invented these “brilliant” bits all by myself.

“Waldo what do you think you’re doing?”

“Come over here Mike, and give me a hand.”

“I don’t know, Sally if I’d open that door.”

Each of these is incorrect. The mistake is easily fixed, though. Add a comma before and after the name of the person being addressed.

“Waldo, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Come over here, Mike, and give me a hand.”

“I don’t know, Sally, if I’d open that door.”

However, English being the tricksome beast that it is, don’t get tripped up by multiples.

“William, you and Thomas wash the dishes while Kimberly feeds the cat and dog.” Correct? Incorrect? All those names! Well, who is the speaker speaking to? She (I visualise this as a mother; I suppose because I am one and gave millions of orders like these.) is speaking only to William, so his is the only name set off with a comma.

“William, wash the dishes while you, Thomas, dry them. I want you to feed the cat and dog, Kimberly.” Perfectly dreadful sentences, honestly, but the commas are correct.

 

 

I wouldn’t really spend a blog post talking about this if I hadn’t seen errors recently. It’s not hard. If one character speaks to another one, add commas and stir. Smile

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